Ex-Leper: Okay, sir, my final offer: half a shekel for an old ex-leper?
Brian: Did you say “ex-leper”?
Ex-Leper: That’s right, sir, 16 years behind a veil and proud of it, sir.
Brian: Well, what happened?
Ex-Leper: Oh, cured, sir.
Ex-Leper: Yes sir, bloody miracle, sir. Bless you!
Brian: Who cured you?
Ex-Leper: Jesus did, sir. I was hopping along, minding my own business, all of a sudden, up he comes, cures me! One minute I’m a leper with a trade, next minute my livelihood’s gone. Not so much as a by-your-leave! “You’re cured, mate.” Bloody do-gooder.
(The Life of Brian)
In the 1780’s, Italian anatomist and physician Luigi Galvani started purposely applying electrical currents to the legs of dead frogs. This might sound like an odd pursuit for a respected member of the Accademia delle Scienze dell’Istituto di Bologna, but the curious behavior had its genesis in a laboratory accident. One day, Galvani was skinning a frog on a table where he had earlier been conducting experiments with static electricity generated by rubbing a frog’s skin. Evidently he had a serious frog fetish. A metal scalpel, which had picked up an electric charge was snatched up by Galvani’s research assistant who accidentally touched the scalpel to the exposed sciatic nerve of Galvani’s flayed frog. To both their surprise, the scalpel sparked and the frog’s leg kicked (which was odd, it being most assuredly dead). This observation led to the conclusion that there was a relationship between electricity and animation, and ultimately to the whole field of electrophysiology, which at the time was dubbed “Galvanism” or “Animal Electricity”. While folks like Benjamin Franklin had been conducting research into electricity in the 18th Century, Galvani demonstrated that nerve cells passed signals by electricity, and thus life and electricity were inextricably linked. Good news for Galvani. Bad news for frogs as other scientists replicated his findings. Learned folks of the early 19th Century were all a-twitter, and rumor has it that Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori, summering in Geneva, Switzerland and competing to see who could write the best horror story, spent a lot of time discussing galvanism. The well known result of this was Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, where eccentric Dr. Victor Frankenstein stitched together his eponymously named monster and shocked him into life. Western civilization at this time was creeping its way towards the Industrial Revolution that would fundamentally change the relationship of man to his universe. We were no longer “of nature”, rather we were emerging as the technical masters of our world, and as pioneering environmental scientist Donella Meadows observed, “Ever since the Industrial Revolution, Western society has benefited from science, logic, and reductionism over intuition and holism. Psychologically and politically we would much rather assume that the cause of a problem is ‘out there,’ rather than ‘in here’. It’s almost irresistible to blame something or someone else, to shift responsibility away from ourselves, and to look for the control knob, the product, the pill, the technical fix that will make a problem go away”. Surprisingly, this extended to theology, when Unitarian minister John Murray Spear from Boston, Massachusetts (and friends), fed up with waiting for the messiah, decided in 1852 that it was time to build a “Frankensavior”.
Now, John Murray Spear (1804-1887) wasn’t just some garden variety lunatic who woke up one day and thought he could whip together a messiah. He was minister of the Barnstable congregation of the Universalist Church of America (the forerunner of Unitarianism), studied theology under Hosea Ballou (1796-1861), also known as the father of American Universalism (the Christian movement that started from the premise that god was not wrathful, all humans were to be reconciled with the divine, and promoting the inclusion of all religious faiths, since they all seemed to more or less be saying the same thing), and was great pals with abolitionist and reformer Theodore Parker (whose speeches would inspire those of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.), and prominent journalist, suffragist and social reformer William Lloyd Garrison. Spear himself was a tireless advocate for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, prison reform, and elimination of the death penalty. All in all, he went beyond being just an enlightened and decent dude for the intellectual climate he was born into, but he also put his money where his mouth was and helped oversee the stretch of the Underground Railroad that ran through Boston. One wonders if his reformist proclivities, based on the rampant social injustice he was working against made him a little impatient for the Second Coming. I mean, these sons of gods are children of privilege and have no sense of punctuality. It’s not like the party can start without them, and since they have not as of yet RSVP’d, we don’t even know if they’re going to show up. For a reform minded theologian fighting the good fight, that has to be a little frustrating, so frustrating in fact, that John Murray Spear broke all ties with the Universalist Church in 1852 and turned to the burgeoning, but amorphous Spiritualist movement that had started spreading through the English-speaking world in the 1840’s. Spiritualism was not really an organized religion per se, rather a conglomeration of beliefs including the idea that the spirits of the dead were both able and inclined to communicate with the living, that the soul endures after death and can continue to improve, and a generalized conception of god as an “infinite intelligence” (our world being an expression of that intelligence). There was a great deal more to Spiritualism (but with undeniable humanitarian and millennial overtones involving the regeneration of the earth and man) than the caricature of mediumship and table-rapping that would later be associated with it. I mean, they still may have been a bunch of loons, but in terms of social justice they tended to be remarkably progressive and enlightened loons for a 19th Century religious movement. Besides, I’m fairly certain there is certain cosmological significance in my microwave’s error codes, so who am I to judge. And on that note, the incipient Industrial Revolution was busy changing the face of Western culture at a rapid pace, so one can understand if a sensitive thinker such as Spears thought that the scientific and technological developments that were motivating remarkable changes in society were not perhaps translatable into the realm of religion.
Neither is it likely that John Murray Spear simply had some sort of psychotic break and headed off into the woods to construct an electric messiah. That would just be crazy. His whole separation from the Universalists and turn towards spiritualism appears to have been precipitated by his reported contact with a group of disembodied spirits which he referred to as “The Association of Electrizers”, and which included such notable deceased as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and Benjamin Rush, as well as Spear’s namesake John Murray (co-founder of the Universalist Church). In 1853, Spear led a band of spiritualist followers to Chautauqua County, New York to found a utopian commune (scandalizing the locals with peculiar notions about “free love”). By 1854, he was busy explaining a complex theory of the spirit world to the spiritualist press to give credit to the source of some of his stranger ideas. “The eager spirits of the dead had, he said, organized themselves in expert groups or colleges, in order to assist in the regeneration of the earth, and so there were bands of Governmentizers, Educationizers, Agriculturalizers, Healthfulizers, Electrizers,” and so on. The ‘Electrizers’ had communicated to him the plan of a new electric motor which was to revolutionize industry and enable him to carry out the familiar dream—four hours’ work a day and wealth for all” (McCabe, 1920, p84-85). To say that Spear fancied a form of perpetual motion machine, which he referred to as “The New Motive Power”, and which would change the spiritual landscape of 19th Century America is a gross oversimplification. Spear insisted he was being instructed by spirits to create a living machine. Even other spiritualists were a bit skeptical.
Considered as an isolated fact, what we are about to narrate may seem to excuse the opprobrious epithets with which its founder and his sympathizers were assailed; but regarded as the production of a mind whose marked idiosyncrasies became powerfully developed by the afflatus of a great revival season, and whose high aspirations and really reformatory aims were stimulated by the influence of sanguine minds of kindred nature in the spheres, the history of the “new motive power” may be regarded as precisely the sequence to be expected from the temperament of its human originator. We must add that Mr. Spear’s mind had evidently been exercised on the subject of combining mineral with vital electricity as a means of developing the latent powers of mediumship, and he had on more than one occasion subjected himself to the most scathing ridicule from his contemporaries by seeking to promote the influence and control of spirits, through the aid of copper and zinc batteries, so arranged about the person as to form an armor, from which he expected the most extraordinary phenomenal results. An experiment of this nature, tried at St. Louis, proved, so far as external effects were concerned, a complete failure; hence it was denounced as the most preposterous presumption and absurd fanaticism (Britten, 1870, p219).
Spear kept up a stream of correspondence with the Boston New Era, a leading spiritualist periodical edited by S.C. Hewitt (who appears to have been an enthusiastic advocate for Spear’s views). It was through Hewitt in 1854, although many of Spear’s ideas were laid out in his earlier book Messages from the Superior State, that he declared his intention to build a machine that would draw its energy from nature and be self-perpetuating, destined to replace all other machines. Rather than electricity, the machine would be powered by an “indwelling spiritual principle”.
A Mrs. Mettler had been designated by the spirits as the “Mary of the New Dispensation” and had begun having pains and anxieties associated with pregnancy. Until Spear contacted her, however, she was unsure exactly what she was to conceive. Spear instructed her to go to a mountain near Lynn, Massachusetts by the name of High Rock, on top of which was an awkward looking device made of zinc, copper, and wood. Upon reaching the machine she fell into a trance, went into labor, and after two hours gave “birth” to the machine by infusing her life energy into it. At this point observers swore that the machine moved, ever so slightly, but it had moved. Once again the spirits had displayed their phenomenal power by creating a machine variously called the Art of all Arts, the Science of all Sciences, the New Messiah, the Philosopher’s Stone, the Great Spiritual Revelation of the Age, God’s Last Best Gift to Man. (Broadway, 1981, p10).
The Boston New Era reported the birthing of the “new motive power” in great detail, and it is worth reproducing here.
It was announced to Mrs. M., by spiritual intelligence, several months since, that she would become a mother in some new sense; that she would be ‘ the Mary of a new dispensation.’ The announcement was given under circumstances the most impressive, and in connection with a most beautiful and instructive vision, in which was strikingly elucidated a most important spiritual lesson, namely, the true significance of the cross, as an emblem of spiritual advancement. All who were present on the occasion were deeply impressed with the superior capacities and exalted moral attainments of the intelligences communicating, as evidenced by the profound and comprehensive character of their teachings. Nevertheless, the prophecy or announcement spoken of, though declared with marked emphasis, and directed to be put on record, was not believed to have any peculiar meaning. It was thought to refer possibly to the maternal feeling which she had felt toward individuals, who had, through her instrumentality, been instructed in the truths of the new philosophy. Least of all was there the slightest hint that it had any relation whatever to the mechanism then constructing at High Rock. No one connected with that enterprise was present, and nothing was known of this declaration by them until it was recalled by the events which subsequently transpired. Previously to this, Mrs. M. had for some time experienced certain sensations and agonies similar to those attendant upon gestation. Subsequently these indications gradually increased, until they at length became very marked and inexplicable, and presented some very singular characteristics. They were supposed, however, to be at least partially indicative of disease; but were not imagined to have the remotest connection with either the mechanism at High Rock, or with the prophecy which has been alluded to. As the crisis approached, a variety of singular events, from apparently independent causes (which cannot be narrated here), seemed to point to some unusual result, though all failed to give any person cognizant of them the slightest apprehension of the nature of that result.
At length a request came, through the instrumentality of J.M. Spear, that on a certain day she would visit the tower at High Rock. No one in the flesh — herself least of all — had any conception of the object of this visit. When there, however (suitable preparations having been carefully made by superior direction, though their purpose was incomprehensible), she began to experience the peculiar and agonizing sensations of parturition, differing somewhat from the ordinary experience, inasmuch as the throes were internal, and of the spirit rather than of the physical nature, but nevertheless quite as uncontrollable, and not less severe than those pertaining to the latter. This extraordinary physical phenomenon continued for about the space of two hours. Its purpose and results were wholly incomprehensible to all but herself; but her own perceptions were clear and distinct that in these agonizing throes the most interior and refined elements of her spiritual being were imparted to, and absorbed by, the appropriate portions of the mechanism — its minerals having been made peculiarly receptive by previous chemical processes. This seemed no more absurd or unphilosophical than the well-known fact that a gold ring, or any other article worn about the person, becomes impregnated to a degree with spiritual emanations, or that the elements of one’s being can be and are imparted to an autograph so fully that the character, capacities, and may be psychomtrized therefrom.
The result of this phenomenon was, that indications of life or pulsation became apparent in the mechanism; first to her own keenly sensitive touch, and soon after to the eyes of all beholders. These pulsations continued to increase, under a process, which she was impelled to continue for some weeks, precisely analogous to that of nursing (for which preparation had previously been made in her own organization, while she was in utter ignorance of any such design), until at times a very marked and surprising motion resulted.
At every step in these singular transactions, Mrs. M. has been attended by angelic intelligences (whose presence is perceived by her own interior senses), who have from time to time explained the rationale of their proceedings and of her experiences, and unfolded, in various departments of science, philosophy, and morals, principles and truths of the highest practical moment to us and to mankind. These teachings have been, to a great extent, based upon, and elucidated by, the various experiences connected with that mechanism ; and they have been not only profound and comprehensive, intellectually considered, but of the highest, purest, and most elevating moral and spiritual character. That these intelligences have infused into her spirit a most beautiful, harmonizing, celestial influence, has been perceived by all who have enjoyed communication with her, and none of these, I feel assured, will hesitate to endorse the admission that ‘she gets a large influx of superior, saving, harmonizing truths.’ (New Era, June 29, 1854).
Upon Spear’s announcement of the success in birthing the mechanical messiah, Hewitt published a breathless column in the New Era heralding the advent of a new age.
We are prepared to announce to the world: First, that spirits have revealed a. wholly new motive power, to take the place of all other motive powers. Second, that this revelation has been embodied hi a model machine, by human cooperation with the powers above. Third, that results are, thus far, satisfactory to its warmest friends -THE THING MOVES. We have the birth of a new science, a new philosophy, and a new life. The time of deliverance has come at last, and, henceforth, the career of humanity is upward and onward—a mighty, a noble, a god-like career. All the revelations of spiritualism heretofore; all the control of spirits over mortals, and the instruction and discipline they have given us, have only paved the way, as it were, for the advent of a great practical movement, such as the world little dreams of; though it has long deeply yearned for it, and agonised, and groaned away its life because it did not come sooner. And this new motive power is to lead the way in the great speedily coming salvation. It is to be the physical saviour of the race. The history of its inception, its various stages of progress, and its completion, will show the world a most beautiful and significant analogy to the advent of Jesus as the spiritual savior of the race. . . . Hence we most confidently assert that the advent of the science of all sciences, the philosophy of all philosophies, and the art of all arts, has now fairly commenced. The child is born; not long hence he will go alone. Then he will dispute with the doctors in the temples of science, and then! (Home, 1877, p218).
In a stunning parallel with the New Testament, things would go rather badly for the newly birthed messiah. The entire apparatus, now thought to be imbued with the appropriate spirit, was moved to Randolph, New York, where locals angry at what they perceived as blatant blasphemy destroyed the mechanism, no doubt providing object evidence for Constatine Karamanlis’ adage “When things go badly we look to some messiah to save us. If by chance we think we have found one, it will not be long before we destroy him”.
It was moved, as you know, to Randolph, N.Y., that it might have the advantages of that lofty electrical position. A temporary building was erected to shelter it. Into that, under the cover of the night, the mob entered, tore out the heart of the mechanism, trampled beneath their feet, and scattered it to the four winds. I know the friends who were engaged in constructing this mechanism, and those who cheerfully gave of their means to promote the work, will mourn that the world has not yet arrived at a condition when it could welcome a philanthropic effort of this kind; but thus it is. It did not wish the effort to succeed, and it determined it should not (Daniels, 1856, p188).
John Murray Spear reportedly uttered the words, “Truth crushed to earth shall rise again” upon hearing of the destruction of his “physical savior”. He continued to lecture on spiritualism, despite the fact that the vast majority of spiritualists largely rejected both him and his attempts to concoct a messiah. In 1872, Spear retired (under instructions from the Association of Electrizers) and died five years later. The “New Motive Power” has not as of yet risen again.
Britten, Emma Hardinge, d. 1899. Modern American Spiritualism: a Twenty Years’ Record of the Communion Between Earth And the World of Spirits. (2d ed.) New York: The author, 1870.
Capron, Eliab Wilkinson. Modern Spiritualism: Its Facts And Fanaticisms, Its Consistencies And Contradictions : With an Appendix. Boston: Bela Marsh , 1855.
Daniels, J. W. Spiritualism Versus Christianity: Or, Spiritualism Thoroughly Exposed. New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1856.
Home, D. D. 1833-1886. Lights And Shadows of Spiritualism. 2d and cheaper ed. London: Virtue, 1878.
McCabe, Joseph, 1867-1955. Spiritualism; a Popular History from 1847. London: T. F. Unwin, ltd, 1920.
Broadway, William J. “Universalist Participation in the Spiritualist Movement of the Nineteenth Century”. Unitarian Universalist Historical Society. The Proceedings of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society. [Chicago]: The Society, 1981.